Concussion, Traumatic Brain Injury, or Post-Concussive Syndrome? Functional Medicine Can Help!

Jonathan Vellinga, MD

Concussions, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and their long-term effects are a widespread problem: almost 3 million people visit emergency rooms with some form of traumatic brain injury each year (1, 2). It is surprising then that there aren’t many conventional treatments to help heal the brain, mitigate long-term effects, or even successfully treat symptoms without side effects. Functional medicine, however, has provided relief for many people through a variety of treatments that often include pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy, dietary changes, and Omega-3 and CBD supplementation.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic Brain Injury and Concussions

A traumatic brain injury is any disruption in normal brain function. The most common causes of direct trauma are falls, bumps, blows, or an object penetrating the skull (2, 3). Jolts from any rapid acceleration and then deceleration, such as whiplash or blast injuries, can cause TBI. Cerebrospinal fluid surrounds our brain, cushioning and protecting it from contact with the hard skull. While many falls, bumps, and jolts happen each day and don’t result in trauma, any time the brain touches the skull it can cause a wide range of issues. Blood vessels can tear, nerve fibers can pull, or the brain itself can be bruised (2). While severity varies, any form of TBI is serious and needs attention quickly.

One of the most common and more “mild” forms of traumatic brain injury is a concussion. About 1 in 1,000 people experience concussions, most commonly those 75+ years old, 15-24 years old (due to sports), and children ages 0-4 (2, 3, 4). Symptoms of concussions include (2):

  • Headache

  • Memory loss, usually around the time of the injury

  • Double or blurry vision

  • Dizziness or imbalance

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Ringing ears

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much

  • Loss of smell or taste

While many concussions will go away with proper rest and care, sometimes swelling or other adverse effects can occur after the initial injury (2). More severe cases of concussions and traumatic brain injury can also cause symptoms such as motor dysfunction, severe sensory changes, cognitive changes (shortened attention span, overstimulation, distractedness), difficulty understanding or following directions, confusion, or even difficulty expressing words or thoughts (2).

While the severity of the injury often determines the timeline for healing, most concussion symptoms will subside in about 1-3 weeks (5). However, some people find that their symptoms may last anywhere from one month to many years (5).

Post-Concussion Syndrome and Other Long-Term Effects

When symptoms of a concussion last far beyond the usual recovery period, it is called post-concussion syndrome (PCS). Those who experience PCS exhibit several concussive and neurological symptoms that affect their ability to function well. About 10% of teens experience long-term symptoms, and up to 30% of people in other age groups will as well (5). There are four main aspects that PCS can affect: physical health, sleep, cognitive functioning, and mood and behavior (5).